Ryan flicked his wrist in front of his eyes. He glanced quickly at the display of his watch, which was in countdown mode. Seventeen-minutes and forty-two seconds, it read. Just as swiftly, he pulled his arm away and continued running. The people around him blurred as he propelled himself through the crowds of the high street. Hundreds of people just living their lives as if nothing was wrong. They were nothing but obstacles to him now. The burn in his legs rose to the upper-thighs, every step felt like emptying a kettle of boiling water over them. Ryan didn’t slow down. He couldn’t. He had gained nearly a second on his previous time. Maybe it was enough.
It was all like a well-choreographed dance to him now. Man in grey suit with blue pinstripes exits the newsagents, rushes straight into the street, his briefcase swinging in front of him. Ryan propelled himself to the left of the pavement, weaving between two old ladies pushing their shopping trolleys and dodging the suited man. He crossed the road which was jammed with traffic. There was a lorry parked farther up the street outside the hardware store. The tail-lift had malfunctioned, grounding the lorry, forcing the busy rush hour congestion to use a single lane between them. He slipped between a white van and a red estate car whose occupant was pushing his horn repeatedly, as if one more blast of sound was going to make the problem go away, to make it all disappear, to get him home to his wife.
A wife. He imagined Michelle’s beautiful green eyes. How she would almost skip up to him when they’d been apart and give him one of her kisses on his cheek, stretching up on her tiptoes to reach him. The way she would hold his hand in hers and gently stroke her finger in circles. No matter what the day brought, there would always be this moment of reunion. After seven years of marriage she was still his best friend. She would still pull him to the settee, tuck her feet under herself and want to know everything which had happened to him. They shared everything with each other.
Benches littered the street as he passed the posts marking off the pedestrianised zone of the street. People stared at him as his mouth grimaced in pain, as his feet thundered against the floor, each contact with the ground sending ripples throughout his flesh. People stepped backwards out of way, leaving a channel through the middle of the street.
Twelve-minutes and four seconds, boy wearing headphones steps into the channel with his back to Ryan. Collision seemed imminent, but Ryan was ready. He pushed his arms out and diverted the boy back into the crowds, the boy fell to the floor and yelped in surprise and pain. He would be okay. He turned around and yelled out his apology. The channel loomed ahead, a vast chasm of emptiness where people lurked on the sidelines. Sometimes they said they wanted to help, but it was just mild courtesy. Nobody was truly willing to help him. They could never understand. It was only her. The eyes, the touch. The way she always pretended to be mad about the little things so that he would have to surprise her, have to make up for his forgetfulness, or his insensitivity, or his ignorance; the way she’d pretend not to be mad if it was something major, so no matter what they faced, they faced it together. United.
The shop-fronts changed from chain stores to local shops. “Karen’s Boutique,” “The Photo Shop,” “Tracy’s Corner.” They whizzed past like everything else – a blur – but they were all in Ryan’s head. Every single one of them burned into his mind alongside a time-code. “Suited and Booted,” time, five-minutes and two seconds. He was still only ahead by two seconds. Maybe it was enough.
The buildings fell away and gave themselves over to lush grass embankments, dotted with tiny saplings wrapped in protective plastic. It would keep them safe, no matter what happened, those saplings would weather it.
Weaving in through the banks, the canal turned on itself and began to run parallel to Ryan. The murky brown water swallowed all light, revealing nothing of its depth. Shopping trolleys, cans and empty beer bottles lay strewn on the pathway which flanked it. He looked up, his body dripping with sweat. Yet he made no effort to wipe it from himself, nothing would slow him down. The bridge across the canal came into view. Watch, forty-five seconds. There was barely a single unit of energy left inside him, he pushed himself even harder.
The bridge loomed closer and closer, his destination was almost upon him. As the watch ticked to zero he watched it all happen. Some say the world ends with a bang, others say with a whimper. Ryan’s ended with a splash.
The water soothed the burning of his limbs as he dove into the canal. Swimming to the middle he wrapped his arms around the fragile object, wrapped in blue, dragged it to side, lifting it onto the canal pathway. It tumbled over with little resistance. Ryan pulled himself out of the water and gazed down.
Her beautiful green eyes stared back at him. No, they stared through him. They looked upwards through the clear sky and pierced right through to the heavens.
“Please, wake up.”
There was no response.
“Wake up!” He screamed it again, over and over until he felt like his vocal chords were being torn apart, falling in on themselves inside of him. Before too long, his body refused to give voice any more.
“Michelle, baby. You have to wake up,” he whispered into her ear as he caressed her within his arms.
“Wake up.” Even the whispers failed him now. His body started to quake. The crowd which had formed around him may as well have been a million light-years away. His world was in his arms, and it was slipping away. Sirens began to stab through the air, growing louder with every second. Time, it was so precious before, now all it did was to stretch on infinitely. Nothing had any meaning any more.
He let her head rest back on the ground and looked at her. Blood covered her forehead where she had banged it on the bridge. Her blue dress was torn where the cyclist had caught her, sending her toppling over the edge. All he had to do was to look back, to say he was sorry. He didn’t, nor did he see her slip quietly into the water.
Ryan opened his eyes amid the darkness of his house. A small glass filled with whiskey clutched in his hand. Dishes and cartons and empty glass bottles lay strewn around the room. The air was empty, the sirens faded from his ears as the image of her vanished into nothingness. Attempt number eight-hundred and forty-five had failed. He had let her down again. Let her slip through his fingers once more. He closed his eyes after taking a sip of whiskey, he felt nothing of the burn as it slid down his throat. Next time things would change. The results would be different next time.
The street stretched out ahead of him. Ryan flicked his wrist up to his eyes. He glanced quickly at the display of his watch. Seventeen-minutes and forty-two seconds, it read.